Executive Perspective

Our Move Toward Common Standards

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents chose the global achievement gap as the topic for its annual conference earlier this year. VASS has sent a number of Virginia superintendents to India and, like many state affiliates, it is keenly interested in the topic of global education.

AASA led a delegation of superintendents to China in June 2008 in conjunction with the College Board and Hanban, the Office of Chinese Language Council International. There is a good chance this will be a recurring event for us, so contact me if you are interested in going with us next June.

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech


Those of us who have traveled to examine education systems around the world are aware of the huge disparity of resources that exists between countries. When we visit Third World countries, we are saddened by the conditions we see and count our blessings as we return home. When we visit developed nations, we better understand the global achievement gap highlighted by assessments done by the Programme for International Student Assessment and the alarm originally sounded by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study back in 1997 when U.S. students were outperformed by 20 countries.

Global Comparisons
School visitations and meetings with foreign school officials allow us to see cultural and pedagogical factors that contribute to disparities in learning outcomes. One knowledgeable educator to report on his observations is Robert Gross, the regional officer for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools, who left a superintendency in Minnesota in 1999 to become the superintendent of the Singapore American School. In his March article (“An Inside Look at Singapore Math With American Eyes”) for The School Administrator, Gross says in Singapore “the curriculum has a strong emphasis on science and math and is designed for depth rather than breadth.”

Gross further explains that, although Singapore classrooms have up to 44 students per class, there is a tremendous respect for education and educators. There is also a mandatory national curriculum.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, spoke to AASA’s state executives and leaders during a spring meeting in Phoenix. The council has joined forces with the National Governors Association to initiate the development of a common core of state standards. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports the efforts to create national standards developed and agreed to by the states, as opposed to federally created and mandated standards.

Many of us are beginning to understand that, if America is to be competitive on the world market, and if our students are to rank at the top of the PISA and TIMSS assessments, we must make changes that clearly go against our traditional penchant for local and state rights. While most of the developed nations we compete with have national curricula and assessments, consider that the United States obstinately holds on to standards produced by 50 states and 14,000 school districts.

No Child Left Behind introduced us to accountability but left each state to develop its own standards and assessments and to establish its own benchmarks for determining adequate yearly progress. The results of that process have led the education secretary to state that “fraud” is being perpetrated on the American public. We have seen a steady improvement in state test results without the concomitant improvement in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, the benchmark assessment to which state results are to be compared.

Since the U.S. Constitution is basically mute on the federal role in education, it is the states that are charged with creating and maintaining a public education system. Consequently, a state has the right to establish its own standards, curriculum and system of assessment. A state could explain the difference in results between its test and the NAEP as a lack of alignment between the state’s curriculum and the one upon which the NAEP is based.

That is all well and good, but how will we ever compete on the world stage if our nation is represented by 50 separate stand-ards as compared to the one international standard for the nations against which we are competing?

A Unified Approach
A report recently released by the Fordham Institute titled “International Lessons about National Standards” compares the U.S. and Germany’s reactions to the 1997 TIMSS results. Both countries witnessed a precipitous decline in TIMSS standing, being outperformed by 20 nations. At the time, both countries relied on the states to develop and implement national standards.

Germany moved quickly to introduce national standards. In the United States, the Clinton administration addressed the issue by introducing a voluntary national test, but Congress quickly ended that effort. Roughly a decade later, the 2006 PISA results show Germany clearly outperforming the United States.

National standards will not solve all the problems affecting our public schools. However, a common set of standards, agreed to by all the states, can lead to one nation working together to solve the problems that confront our public schools.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has developed a memorandum of agreement for states to review the process of developing the common core standards. It hopes to have at least 48 states on board as they move to the development and eventual adoption of the standards.

AASA supports the development of voluntary national standards, and we will work closely with our state affiliates and the CCSSO.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org